In Deep: What They Don’t Tell You About Making an Indie Film.

I’m not a film guru. I’m an ordinary joker starting from scratch. I woke up one morning seven years ago with a plan. Seven years later I woke up again, and found the only way to do something, is to just go out and do it. Don’t make a list. A list here doesn’t work. A list ties you to a plan for your plan, and if you surround yourself with too many lists, nothing will ever get done.

I’m not a life guru either. Definitely not one of them. In order to be a ‘guru’ in anything, you have to have a scheme. And a personal assistant to keep that scheme flowing, because otherwise, you’d be making up your own lists and trying to follow them. Notice how all the advice is administered by people who have personal assistants? And personal chefs? And teeth whitener? They paint this picture of success, but in the wrong way. Beneath all that facade, they started out without all of that guff, and had to make the mistakes and slog to get where they are now. And for some crazy, weird notion – they forget to say this. Or they skip over it in passing towards their BIG PLAN TO FOLLOW TO MAKE THE WORLD AWESOME AND YOU CAN DO IT TOO. JUST BUY MY SHIT YOU DON’T NEED.

To be honest, if they just showed up in jeans and a flannel with a photo of the car they used to drive, they would have more credibility in convincing everyone that they too were an ordinary joker once starting from scratch. Because humans are like magpies. We only see the shiny – even if it is chocolate wrapped up in tin foil.

And whilst this is aimed at (some of) the stuff they forget to tell you when making an indie film, it possibly applies to life too.

1. It’s not rocket science. You don’t need a degree, but you sure as hell better know why you don’t need a Super Techno 30.

Making a film is a lot like the concept of time travel: it’ll do your head in, but it’s awesome. There’s a lot of theory and history of film and film-making. If you chose to study it, then good on ya but you’ve learnt nothing that is going to help you make your film. Any facet of film-making, from scriptwriting to camera angles, requires research and experience: watch, and do. Watch and do.

Look at it this way: A SCUBA diver still needs to know how to use a snorkel.

2. Even restaurant owners know how to bus tables.

A friend of mine is a chef and restaurant owner. A damn good one too. Once upon a time he told me, “This is my restaurant, and I’m not afraid to bus tables.” If you are making an indie film, you can’t be afraid to pour coffee. There is no place for Ego here. You want this puppy made, then you need to lock-down your own locations, you need to write your call-sheet, and be prepared to jump in whenever is necessary. Respect your crew, but know when to be there. Be prepared to get them lattes at 2am.

You also need to know how things work. Don’t be afraid to offer your time for free in order to learn about a process. Get to understand Post Production, Distribution, Sound, Scriptwriting, Grips. All those departments on your standard call-sheet? Yeah, get intimate with them all as much as you can. People love showing what they know – let them show it to you. Show & Tell my friends, Show & Tell.

Because you will do the same for someone else. Karma says so.

3. Know when to say, “Yes”.

I’m not saying become a “Yes Man”. Nobody really likes THAT GUY. Mostly because “Yes People” don’t deliver, or they deliver something sub par. Learn the balance of saying “yes” and saying “I’ll see what I can do”.

4. Know when to replace “No” and “I don’t know” with “I’ll see what I can do”.

When you say “No” or “I don’t know” you are doing two things: A. Cutting off further communication, B. Undermining yourself.

Making an indie film means finding solutions when there are none. People value solutions. They value people who find solutions. More importantly to you, value any situation that offers itself as providing further communication. “I’ll see what I can do” or “Let me find out for you” puts you in control of information. It makes you that ‘go-getter buzz word descriptive’ but more importantly you are forging relationships and making a databank of solutions.

5. There is no “You” in filmmaking, there is only “Them”. 

Ashley over at The Middle Finger Project puts it very well:

At the end of the day, when you make it about them, they’ll like you.  And when they like you, they’ll buy from you.  Period.

Whilst Ashley focuses on online entrepreneurs, for the indie filmmaker this rings especially true when it comes to your film audience. I don’t care what genre you are labeling yourself in – even if it is “un-genre”, you need MUST connect with your audience. If your story, character, vision doesn’t gel with your audience, then get out of the editing suite.

Know your audience. Know Them.

There are a lot of “Them” in indie filmmaking – sponsors, private backers, crew – and the advice remains the same. Be sincere in what the film is offering them.

6. Not everyone is going to like you. Move on.

Following on from #5, who you are and what you do isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Get over it. Move on. Really, dwelling on the ‘but why?’ is just a waste of time. There are plenty of other people out there who will and do like you. Stick with them.

Feel better? Good.

7. You don’t have to be Van Gogh to be creative.

You don’t have to be a storyboard artist or experienced scriptwriter to be creative. Having a hard time expressing your scenes? Ask a storyboard artist for advice. They may not be able to offer you their services, but remember, people like to show what they know. There are short-cuts and secrets to every trade.

There are also plenty of apps and software out there to help. Celtx offers storyboard, and scouting tools using photos and icons. Stick figures and descriptive index cards are equally useful. Can’t spell for shit? Final Draft and Celtx have spell-check and easy formatting.

No excuses.

8. The reason you don’t need a degree is because the learning never ends.

This holds across every industry and life path. You can get that foundation of knowledge, but you’ll always build upon it and adapt to how things change. Whereas there may be some key features of filmmaking that stay the same – a blueprint – I’ve yet to be on a production that hasn’t taught me something new about the industry, myself, and the people within the industry. From technical to psychological.

9. Traditional vs. Digital. No-one cares.

Speaking of “Change”. You may prefer film stock. You may shoot on DSLR. You may ask yourself, “how did I get here?”

Water flowing underground.

Change happens. For indie films there is no better time than right now. Digital distribution and formats make audiences accessible outside of the conventional film festival and cinema. You don’t need to follow studio die hard rules. Indie filmmakers are part of the pioneers heading off into the great unknown, except we know what the unknown is: it’s film viewers.

It doesn’t matter if you go conventional, or unconventional. No-one cares what format you use. Just make your film. Show your audience. Then find more audience.

Rinse. Repeat.

Voila, you are doing what you love.

10. If you don’t answer email on the toilet, then you are not using your time efficiently.

Do I really need to explain this in a paragraph?

Cautionary note: Don’t answer the phone on the toilet, unless you know the other person really, really, really, really won’t care.

Cautionary note 2: Never answer the phone if it is your mother. That is a whole other world of messed up right there.

Cautionary note 3: Facebook doesn’t need to know when you are answering email on the toilet.

11. Watch stuff. Take notes. Be prepared to be watching stuff alone because you talk so damn much.

It sounds harsh, but I can’t watch films with other people. Why? Because I turn into Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Google it, then Youtube it. You can thank me later.

You need to watch stuff. Vimeo shorts, Youtube “full episodes”, whatever. Drop into Amazon and do a genre search. Find the hidden gems, and watch them because you can learn a lot from what you see. Even that 5minute Vimeo short can offer more in those 5 minutes than a 4 year degree. The coupling of narrative and sound. Music and camera angles. Pace. Colour grading. Absorb all those things. Make notes on what you like and don’t like. Start mapping the “other” creative side of your film. Make a song list. Have an idea of what you want your finished film to look like. It’ll make everything else easier – especially pitching.

12. Don’t surround yourself with drama. You’ll get plenty of that anyway.

Most of the fields I’ve worked in, outside of film production, have had a penchant for creating drama. But in reality, anywhere there are people, there will be drama. There’s always one (or two) who stand out from the rest as having a whirlwind around them at all times. High maintenance, highly strung, or just on that high rung of their own rollercoaster, you really won’t escape them unless you live alone in a cabin somewhere. And even then, I guarantee Mother Nature will send a neurotic squirrel to your garden.

High drama people/animals though need an audience. Most of the time. Extract yourself from their whirlwind and concentrate on down-grading your own. If you find yourself thrown into their whirlwind, then sucks to be you. No really, suck it up. Offer a solution and move on out of there. Flailing like a muppet along with them is just a waste of your time.

13. Be your brand. 

In his docu, “POM Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”, Morgan Spurlock had a brand analysis done on himself. In selling your film, you are your own brand. You are the face of your film. Opportunity to talk about it will pop out of the least likely of situations, and you will need to know when to stop talking. You don’t have to have a suit made like our pal Morgan did, just know what your film is and isn’t.

Also know yourself. Be honest about your limitations and experience. People are interested in seeing ‘ordinary’ succeed, not just what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast.

14. Be your own Craft Nazi. Half that shit is plastic anyway.

More than likely, you’re still working. If you’re in the industry, you’ll be working on someone else’s film or commercial and enjoying the irony at early morning call-times. Craft (or snacks to those with normal lives) is EVERYWHERE. Late night junk food orders, and vending machines packed with nutritionless temptation exist in every corner of the globe, in every office. If you only take one piece of advice with you from this exhaustive list, take this: LEAVE THAT SHIT ALONE. IT WILL KILL YOU AND I DON’T MEAN YOUR SPIRIT.

No really. Whether you succeed or fail & regroup, you have to stay fit, healthy and conscious. Sure, go ahead and have after-work drinks with your co-workers, or a bit of birthday cake, but keep those as exceptions. And if you have a hard time with temptation, dangle that metaphorical carrot in front of yourself. Tell yourself, that at the wrap party you will have a craft table laden with everything you avoided JUST. FOR. YOU.

And exercise. Not just because it’s good for that whole mind-body-spirit triangle, but you’ll find solutions when you exercise. That whole ‘not really thinking about it but the brain is anyway’. You’ll de-stress AND find solutions. All offices should have treadmills instead of chairs.

15. If you’re not waking up with the unknown pulling you along; if you’re not waking up wishing you took up underwater basket-weaving instead; if you’re not waking up stressing over everything; if you’re not screaming “FUCK YEAH!” at the little things; if you’re not shouting “FUCK YOU!” at the big things, then you are doing it wrong.

You will be enthusiastic, excited, scared, depressed, stressed, confused, angry, humiliated, humbled, thirsty, hungry, awake at 4am, asleep on your laptop at 8pm, shouting loads, taking long showers, juggling chainsaws, dancing on tight-ropes,  making random notes in a queue on a receipt, crying in corners, confiding in parking meters, drinking alone, drinking with friends, thinking about your film treatment as they talk about their break-up, plotting your escape, loving life, sleeping less, drinking more coffee, hating life, taking time off because fuckyoufilm,  reminding yourself to remember a great one-liner for a film festival speech, looking at changing careers, feeling a little like Charlie Kaufman and Katy Perry at the same time, and check-listing yourself for schizophrenia on WebMD a few times. You will love everything about what you are doing, then at some random moment after a long shift, hating everything and everyone because they just don’t understand, maaan!

It’s normal. Especially the Katy Perry part.

Everyone talks about “passion” and “having passion” and “needing passion”. That undefinable something-something. “The pull”. “The tug”. “Drive”.

In short, you will know passion when you have it.

And if you’re unsure: it’s that thing you have when you still don’t have money.

(yes. it’s a little like stupidity)

Next time:

Getting Sponsors: How I live with myself everyday.

Budgets: Dyscalculia helps. No really, it does.